The Sanhuri Code, and the Emergence of Modern Arab Civil Law (1932 to 1949)

The Sanhuri Code
  • Book Title:
 The Sanhuri Code
  • Book Author:
Guy Bechor
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Today is July 14th, Bastille Day for the French, and in the streets of Greater Cairo I saw the splendid decorations the French customarily go up each year in honor of the storming of the Bastille . . . Yet, as an Egyptian, I felt like a stranger among these decorations, although they are placed in the center of my own country. I felt tears fiow from my eyes. I passed one decoration bearing the legend ‘Vive la France!’ and tried to whisper to myself “Vive l’Egypte,” but could not bring myself to do so. I recalled that Egypt is not alive today; it is dying after its divided and mutually hateful sons have stabbed it through the heart.

‘Egypt is Sick’

There is extensive research literature regarding the process of political and social radicalization that swept Egypt during the period between February 1922, when the country gained its independence, and the coup staged by ‘The Free Oficers’ thirty years later, in July 1952.

Some of  this literature is biased, due to the influence of  the negative portrayal by the revolution of the preceding era; nevertheless, there can be no denying that during the irst half of the twentieth century, Egypt underwent dramatic and unprecedented economic, social and political changes, leading to the transformation of Egyptian society.

Falling cotton prices, Egypt’s principal industry (from 17.5 Egyptian pounds per kantar [45 kilograms] in 1918 to six pounds per kantar just two years later),3 and dramatic population growth (from less than ten million inhabitants in 1900 to over 22 million in 1952) were not balanced by growth in arable land. While the population increased by 67 percent between 1917 and 1947, Arable land increased by just 20 percent in this same period.

These developments led to massive migration from rural areas to the cities in search of work and hope. The result was depressing: The population of Cairo was doubled within twenty years, creating vast, dismal slums and a large social class that was not engaged in productive employment. The standard of living and nutrition fell, poverty was rife, and the gap between rich and poor widened.

 Over half the peasants had no land or worked as daily hired hands, while the vast majority of those who did own land had less than one fadan (one fadan equals 0.42 hectares or slightly over an acre)—less than the area needed to feed their families. By contrast, 12,000 large landowners held 37 percent of all land. Before the Second World War, Egyptian society was likened by

C. Issawi to an inverted pyramid. The top of the pyramid was occupied by the landowners, who controlled much of the national wealth and enjoyed a privileged status and selfishly exploited their power.4

The migrants who flooded to the cities had lived for centuries in a rural social structure. The lack of communal life and moral and social restraints led to the shattering of the personal dreams that had motivated the move to the cities. Hope was replaced by a growing sense of dis- illusionment, frustration, personal and social malaise and resentment.

Echoing the political malaise afflicting Europe during this period, these years also saw an unstable experiment in parliamentary constitutionalism in Egypt. During the 29 years of this regime, until it was overthrown in the 1952 revolution, ten elections were held, and 38 governments

were formed. Only two parliaments completed their term of office (1931–1936, 1945–1950). This political experiment was perceived by many Egyptians as irrelevant to the changing realities of their lives; from here, it was only a short step to the search for alternative political means, generally of a radical and revisionist nature.

Social order in Egypt deteriorated, and the situation was exacerbated by the Second World War, which further eroded religious frameworks, social affiliation, the community and the family.

Safran and others have noted that the millions of foreign soldiers who passed through Egypt led to an erosion of public morality. Well-fed, with money in their pockets and in search of pleasures, and detached from their own social environment, the soldiers created an atmosphere characterized by the motto ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’

They spread new norms regarding sex, drink and licentiousness that were alien to the Egyptian social climate and offended the moral standards of most Egyptians. Moreover, these sated foreign soldiers aroused the envy of hungry Egyptians, fueling xenophobic emotions.

During the war itself, these feelings were assuaged in part by the fact that many Egyptians made a living by providing services for the Allied armies. Immediately after the war, however, 250,000 Egyptians found themselves without employment.5

The rampant inflation that was typical of the twentieth century, worsening shortages and a corrupt administration laid the foundation for profiteering in the black market and for financial speculation. The prevailing free-wheeling atmosphere allowed a few to grow very rich at the expense of millions of starving Egyptians, since demand in the country far exceeded supply.

 As a result, social restraints were weakened still further. The spirit of collective solidarity that had characterized the Egyptian village gave way to growing alienation, epitomized in the colloquial saying Ana ma lı (‘Why should I care?’)6

Social polarization continued to increase. The older quarters of the cities were occupied by rural migrants and impoverished city-dwellers living in harsh conditions. Yet the same cities saw the growth of mod- ern quarters with parks, luxurious apartments and villas, and modern means of communication and transport (Heliopolis was an example of such a neighborhood).

The middle and upper classes lived in these neighborhoods alongside those who were considered foreigners. Religion and the institution of the family were significantly weakened in these areas.7

 Safran referred to this state of blatant polarization as ‘two cit- ies’, divided by a gulf of increasing bitterness and hatred.

 For example, an outbreak of malaria in Upper Egypt led to tens of thousands of deaths in 1943–1945, yet Egyptian society remained unmoved and continued its life undisturbed, although debates were held in parliament on the issue, and this may have formed part of the background to the introduction of a law establishing, for the first time, a minimum wage for agricultural labor. Thousands more Egyptians died in a cholera epidemic that erupted in the south in 1947.8

A famous article written by Egyptian author Taha I:Iusayn was entitled ‘Egypt is Sick’, and described the way Egyptian society responded to the cholera epidemic in the south of the country and the poor neighbor- hoods of the capital. With the double entendre of its title, the article was a searing indictment of the nation’s political and social leaders.

I:Iusayn describes returning from Europe on a ship headed for the port of Alexandria. The sole topic of conversation among the passen- gers was the cholera outbreak, and the author was convinced that on disembarking, he would find an atmosphere of general concern:

Yet behold! All the Egyptians I meet are continuing their lives in the manner to which they are accustomed. The epidemic scares them, but does not divert their attention from themselves and their own pleasures . . .

They continue their life as usual: long tongues, small brains and hearts as hard as stone. They feel nothing of all this or they feel but pay no attention, or they feel and pay attention but care only for themselves . . .9

The most virulent manifestation of the bitterness felt by the disadvantaged members of Egyptian society was probably the day that came to be known as ‘Black Saturday’. On January 26, 1952, over 7,000 hotels, clubs, restaurants, cinemas and modern offices were systematically looted, destroyed and burned in Cairo within just a matter of hours.

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